The Problem with Market-Based Education

“Children spend far more time off-task in a decorated classroom than in a plain one, and their test scores are also lower,” say psychological researchers in a recent New York Times Article, “Rethinking the Colorful Kindergarten Classroom”. The article covers the researchers’ new findings about the popular trend in kindergarten and elementary school classrooms of “vividly colored scalloped borders on the walls, dancing letters, maybe some charming cartoon barnyard animals holding up “Welcome to School!” signs”: that such “information-dense” decorations are over-pricey, distracting, and perhaps even “visually damaging”.

The picture painted is clear: schools are wasting money, teachers are wasting time, and “unadorned” classrooms are what’s needed for proper education. After all, the study says, a student learning in a “spartan” environment is less likely to go off-task, and more likely to have high test scores.

Which is what’s important, right?

The New York Times isn’t the first platform to place increased emphasis on children’s test scores when it comes to education, and it certainly won’t be the last. The No Child Left Behind Act, first implemented in early 2002, focused highly on standardized testing, especially (and exclusively) in the areas of reading, writing, and math; the Common Core curriculum, bankrolled by Bill Gates and supported by President Obama, also emphasizes tests, and again ensures that “English language arts” and “mathematics” are the two most important subjects on the list.

On the surface, there’s really no objection one can make to ensuring that the quality of education in the United States is high. After all, just a simple Google search provides a multitude of terrifying headlines: “U.S. Students Slide In Global Ranking on Math, Reading, Science”, “US Teens Lag in Global Education as Asian Countries Rise to the Top”, “New Survey Ranks U.S. Students 36th in the World.” Anyone skimming these can easily reach the conclusion that something has gone wrong in American schools — and it must be fixed immediately, lest we fall behind China.

But what’s wrong with these approaches to education isn’t their motivations, which are certainly noble and good. It’s their attitude towards education.

It’s the same attitude that drives politicians to trumpet the value of education that’s STEM-based (science, technology, engineering, and math). It’s the same attitude that drives pre-med students to smile uncomfortably at philosophy majors at parties and say, “Uh, so, are you planning to, like, go into teaching?” It’s even the same attitude that drives eight-year-olds to complain loudly to their teachers in the middle of class, “When am I ever gonna use this?”

It’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of education itself.

Education’s role as a widespread phenomenon instead of a luxury for the elite is actually fairly recent. For most of human history, most people who lived in the world were completely illiterate. For a long while after that, in America, education was still kept at the bare minimum: go to your one-room schoolhouse, copy down texts onto your slate, and if you’re lucky, maybe win the Spelling Bee. (X-A-N-T-H-O-P-H-Y-L-L, Laura Ingalls Wilder.)

Then, from the mid-nineteenth century onward, the minimum school leaving age skyrocketed. Suddenly children were staying in school until they were teenagers, until they were 16, until they came of age. Returning soldiers from World War II received their GEDs, and even used the G.I. Bill to go to university. And here in the modern world, higher education is incredibly widespread: a full 66% of American high school graduates enrolled in college in the fall of 2013, say reports.


The natural response is that it’s some sort of class-based arms race, which is certainly true. It’s fairly clear that what most parents want for their children is a more happy and successful life than the one they’ve had, with perhaps a little more emphasis on the successful. (This is, of course, especially true of immigrant parents, who typically go through tremendous hardships in order to ensure that their children will be able to “make it” in the new country.) And of course part of that success is more, better education: if you’ve only attained a high school diploma, it’s incredibly gratifying to see your child graduate from college, and receive all the new opportunities that the degree gives them.

So maybe it’s this that gives education its peculiarly career-oriented flavor, these days. If you’re sending your child to college, with all the financial burden and tremendous risk that implies, it’s a little more worrying to see the kid majoring in “Dramatic Literature” than it would be to, say, see them walking away with an MBA in Business.

But the repercussions of that desire — the good-hearted hope that graduating students will just get a job, for God’s sake — doesn’t just affect college students. The impact ripples down through high schoolers and middle schoolers, across elementary school, right down to the kindergarteners of the study published in the New York Times.

No one’s worrying about whether five-year-olds will get good jobs (at least, not explicitly — there are Manhattan parents who pay for “preschool admissions coaches” guaranteed to get your kid into the “right” preschool, and thereby, apparently, into Harvard. And after that to a successful and happy life, 100% guaranteed.)

But they are subscribing to the basic fallacy that parents, school board members, and politicians keep falling prey to: that education is somehow career-based. That it’s market-based. That it’s even goal-based.

Now this does sound ridiculous. How is education not goal-based? Isn’t that the entire point? To put it crudely, isn’t the idea that you put an uneducated, distractable kid in at one end, and they pop out the other end mature, intelligent, and ready to begin their adult lives?

Well, no. That’s not the idea at all. Because we don’t put children in school to turn them into employees  — we put them in school to turn them into citizens.

The teachers I know have a common saying: “I don’t teach English, I teach children.” Perhaps too clever, yeah (though what else would you expect from Mrs. “I don’t know, can you go to the bathroom?”), but probably the best description of a pre-college educator’s job there is. Across the world, we put adults in front of thirty wailing toddlers (or thirty hormonal preteens, or thirty half-stoned teenagers, or thirty eight-year-olds who won’t stop poking each other with pencils), and by the end of seven hours, we expect those thirty kids to emerge from the classroom smarter and better.

Which can’t happen unless the teacher engages with every student personally, as individuals. And when you engage with someone on that kind of human-to-human scale, it becomes very difficult to see education as the process of cramming facts into heads, day in and day out.

Because education isn’t about cramming facts into heads. It never has been. It never will be.

You don’t teach English; you teach creativity. You don’t teach math; you teach adaptability. You don’t teach history; you teach responsibility, hard work, skepticism, persistence, curiosity, respect, nonconformity, self-esteem, teamwork, patience, fairness, courage. And most of all, you teach love: love of community, love of engagement, love of learning for learning’s sake.

This is the problem with standardized testing, this is the problem with pushing students into STEM fields that they have no skill in or enthusiasm for, this is the problem with market-based education: there is no sweeping, wide-spread way to measure whether or not a student has been educated. America doesn’t need citizens who are knowledgeable; it needs citizens who are intelligent.

Above all else, America needs citizens who are grown-ups. It needs citizens who are mature, who are well-rounded, who have learned that the world isn’t a rat race but a sandbox. It needs adults who can think, not well-trained dogs who have learned tricks.

So if psychologists say that kindergarteners would get higher test scores if they were placed in spartan, austere classrooms all day, then maybe it’s time to rethink those kindergarten classrooms’ priorities. Maybe it’s time to decide whether we’d rather have a kid who’s exploring a fun, stimulating environment or one who can score well on a test created by adults who aren’t exactly focusing on what makes someone a worthwhile person.

Maybe it’s time to realize that the choice between “going off-task” and having fun, and being ultimately successful in life, is a false one. It has been all along.


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